Natural History & Its Unsolved Mysteries

Asiatic Cheetah (Extinct in India since 1952)

By - Novanita Sharma

Asiatic Cheetah - National animal of Iran

India is known all over the world for its four big cat species viz, Tiger (Panthera tigris), Lion (Panthera leo), Leopard (Panthera pardus) and Snow leopard (Panthera uncia). Though intimately associated with India, most of these cat species have their origin in either Northern or Central Asia. However, the earliest fossil remains of Lion has been found in central Europe. These big cat species have migrated to India at different period of times, and after spreading their range over a considerably wide geographic area have survived the onslaught of hunting and other exploitations over a long period of time. On the other hand, Asiatic Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), earlier known as Indian Cheetah, another species of big cat which once roamed in India across its large range spreading from Bengal to the United Provinces, Punjab and Rajputana, Central India to the Deccan plateau vanished from India in 1950s. Outside India, its range extended northwards to Russian Turkestan and Trans-Caspia. The range in South-Western Asia covered frontiers of Sind through parts of Afghanistan, Baluchistan and Persia and Mesopotamia to Syria and Palestine. The Asiatic Cheetah is a subspecies of Cheetah and is slightly smaller and lighter than its African counterpart. Its numbers critically dwindled across its habitats in Asia; Iran is world’s last refuge for this critically endangered species which was declared extinct in India in 1952. The last Asiatic Cheetah in India was reported been hunted in 1947. After 7 decades of its extinction from India, the country is abuzz with the news of reintroduction of African Cheetah in Kuno National Park, Madhya Pradesh. Eight African Cheetahs have already flown from Namibia for this ambitious Cheetah-reintroduction program of India amidst intense debates in the conservation circle regarding the necessity and efficacy of this program. Keeping these debates aside, the important fact to be understood by everyone is that this Cheetah reintroduction program of India is not a conservation initiative in true sense because it is not involving the reintroduction of Asiatic Cheetah (India’s lost species) to its natural range. It will be correct to call this program as ‘African Cheetah introduction to India’ instead of calling it ‘Cheetah reintroduction in India’.

This much talked about event rather bring the spotlight on the critically endangered Asiatic Cheetah; with barely estimated 12 (9 males and 3 females) individuals surviving in the cold, stony deserts and arid habitats of central Iran, this charismatic animal is close to being wiped out from Asia itself. Those working in the field of wildlife conservation ought to wreck their brains to formulate a possible rescue for this species facing imminent risks of extinction from this planet. Since 2001, Iran have developed a protection programme for the Iranian Asiatic Cheetah population with support of the United Nations, but it is evidently inadequate in providing the required protection measures to the last surviving Asiatic Cheetahs. The population of Asiatic Cheetah dropped in Iran from that of 100 in 2010 to mere 12 individuals in 2022. In Iran one of the main problems is road construction across Cheetah’s natural habitats, this is causing Cheetahs going extinct in certain areas because of the roads. Other than this, the Cheetahs in Iran face threats from poaching and large populations of livestock which competes for the natural resources. The real challenge is to provide robust protection to the natural habitats of Asiatic Cheetah in Iran, allowing massive landscapes to this wide-ranging species to survive. Otherwise, the fate of Asiatic Cheetah is sealed, Earth will soon lose another beautiful animal in near future. Asiatic Cheetah is one of the worst victims of environmental crimes committed by human world against wildlife. In India, this species vanished from the wild due to indiscriminate capturing of wild Cheetahs including cubs for the sport of coursing, since the 12th century, the Cheetahs were often called as the Hunting Leopards in India. This era was followed by game hunting practiced by the colonizers who ironically labelled this intrinsically docile wild cat as vermin and awarded rewards for its destruction along with other big cat species of India. This species was known for its benign nature and it has been likened to a dog. English naturalist W. T. Blanford wrote, “The hunting leopard is easily tamed, about six months being required to reduce him to a complete state of obedience and to complete his training. Many of these animals, when tamed, are as gentle and docile as a dog, delighting in being petted, and quite good-tempered even with strangers, purring and rubbing themselves against their friends, as cats do. They are usually kept, when tame, on a charpai or native bedstead, attached by a chain to the wall, and are not shut up in a cage”. The Asiatic Cheetahs are almost impossible to breed in captivity, which meant that wild Cheetahs needed to be constantly trapped from their natural habitats, especially the cubs to support the sport of Indian Kings and nobility alive over centuries. Akbar, the Mughal emperor is said to have kept an unbelievable 9000 Cheetahs for his royal menagerie during his reign in the 16th century. Incidentally, around the early 18th century, this removal of Cheetahs from the wild (including the cubs) led to a tipping point in the wild Cheetah population of India despite their prey base and habitats flourishing in the country. The Indian Cheetah, which later was called Asiatic Cheetah after the species’ extinction in India were considered extinct by the Indian government in 1951-52. 

The last Indian Cheetahs were hunted in 1947

This sets a grim picture of human driven species extinction; a harsh reality of present-day world which we cannot ignore despite our best efforts. India’s ‘Introduction of African Cheetah’ in the erstwhile natural range of Asiatic Cheetah (or the extinct Indian Cheetah), in true sense brings an end to the hope of reviving the lineage of Asiatic Cheetah in India forever. The so-called ‘Cheetah reintroduction’ program of India awaits a long-term scientific evaluation and study to conclude on its contribution to the conservation of Indian grassland ecosystem with the introduction of African Cheetah ( Acinonyx jubatus), a new species of predator in the Indian terrain. This opens a new facet of scientific research, a potential ground for augmenting our knowledge base. At the same time, we must not fail to comprehend the hidden message conveyed to human world by the dying Asiatic Cheetahs, that our scientific acumen has failed in rescuing the species which is in dire need of protection. Our ancestors left no stone unturned in pushing this species to the brink of extinction and we will be labeled as bigger follies if we consider the inimical end of a species as a conservation success story.